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2019 opponent preview: The Kansas City Royals are ready to run

The Royals might not be all that great at hitting or pitching, but they have blazing speed up and down their lineup.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

One of the tough parts of watching a bad baseball team is finding things to hold interest. Whether it’s a single player having a breakout season, a young pitching staff starting to develop, or just the gallows humor of a bad defensive club, even bad baseball can bring us joy. As we have watched the Detroit Tigers lose 98 games in back-to-back seasons, we have become reacquainted with this practice, one we were all-too-familiar with in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.

Kansas City Royals fans will also need to relearn this philosophy as their team heads into a rebuild. They got a crash course in it last season, when the Royals cratered to a 58-104 record, and are likely headed for a few more seasons of losing as the club restocks a still-barren farm system.

But finding something interesting to hold one’s attention? That should be easy for anyone who watches the 2019 iteration of the Royals. After signing Billy Hamilton and reacquiring Terrance Gore over the winter, the Royals now have three of the fastest players in baseball on their roster. Hamilton and shortstop Adalberto Mondesi were among the top 11 players in the game on Statcast’s sprint speed metric last year, while Gore’s baserunning acumen is well-documented. There are articles about who the fastest player on the team is, because that’s what you do when you have a ridiculous collection of talent on a single roster. Add in Whit Merrifield, baseball’s fourth-most prolific base thief since 2017 (Hamilton is first), and these runnin’ Royals should be a threat to go just about any time someone reaches base.

Of course, they can’t really hit or pitch, so don’t expect all that speed to translate into many wins. Should be fun to watch, though!

Team at a glance

2018 record: 58-104 | 2018 pythag: 62-100 | 2019 farm system rank: 27
Manager: Ned Yost (10th year)
First series vs. Tigers: April 4-7
Key additions: OF Billy Hamilton, IF Chris Owings, RHP Brad Boxberger, LHP Jake Diekman, OF Terrance Gore
Key subtractions: SS Alcides Escobar, RHP Jason Hammel, RHP Burch Smith

Who will be their catcher in 2019?

As you probably know by now, Salvador Perez has undergone Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2019 season. He has been an iron man as catchers go, playing at least 129 games in each of the past six seasons.

Now that Perez is going to miss extended time, manager Ned Yost has resorted to making up names.

Baseball Reference says this Frank Schwindel character is a real person, one who put up some solid numbers at Triple-A Omaha last year. Schwindel has spent the bulk of his playing time at first base in recent years, but Royals fans are very excited about his offensive upside behind the plate. Whether or not he actually finds his way into the mix, expect Cam Gallagher to get the bulk of starts. The 26-year-old has put up poor offensive numbers in a handful of big league games so far, but managed a decent walk rate in the minors. He also graded out as one of the better pitch framers in Triple-A last season, a skill that has eluded Perez for most of his career. Meibrys Viloria might also be in the mix, but he spent the bulk of his 2018 season in High-A ball.

The Royals could also go the boring route and pick up one of several veterans who could become available near the end of spring training.

Who else do we need to know?

For a team that is just a few years removed from winning a World Series, the Royals’ roster looks dramatically different. Only three players that were key members of the 2015 team — Perez, Alex Gordon, and Danny Duffy — are still around this season, and Perez is out for the season. A few more players were added to the mix in 2016, but many Royals regulars will be unfamiliar to those who weren’t paying close attention last year.

That the Tigers and Royals only squared off six times in August and September last season adds to the confusion. Ryan O’Hearn, a 25-year-old first baseman, was a second half call-up in 2018 that figures to get the lion’s share of playing time at first base this year. Third baseman Hunter Dozier played in 102 games last season, but was not on the Opening Day roster. Tigers fans will certainly remember Whit Merrifield, who could bounce around the diamond a bit more this year — he played 30 games in center field last season — depending on how other players develop.

The rotation should be a bit more stable. Danny Duffy and his balky shoulder are well known around the game, and most Tigers are aware with Jake Junis (and how good he is against Detroit). Brad Keller logged 140 13 innings for the Royals last season, the third-highest total on the team. The fifth starter battle is a riveting competition between a quartet of names, including former Reds righthander Homer Bailey. The bullpen has been completely revamped, with offseason additions like Wily Peralta, Brad Boxberger, Jake Diekman, and Rule 5 selection Sam McWilliams joining the fold. Royals fans are most optimistic about their homegrown products, like Josh Staumont and Richard Lovelady.

Down on the farm

The Royals’ refusal to trade pending free agents like Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain in 2017 probably cost them a few high-upside prospects, but the organization did well with the compensation picks they received for both players in last year’s draft. In fact, five of the Royals’ top 10 prospects at Baseball Prospectus were drafted in 2018, including No. 4 prospect Brady Singer. MLB Pipeline is even more optimistic about Singer, ranking him as the team’s top overall prospect and No. 54 prospect in baseball. Fellow college hurlers like Jackson Kowar (Singer’s teammate at Florida), Daniel Lynch, and Kris Bubic were also drafted last year.

The Royals have also done well on the international market, picking up players like Seuly Matias (BP’s No. 1 Royals prospect) and Yefri del Rosario as amateurs. Catcher Meibrys Viloria, who ranks in the mid-teens on both lists, was also a previous international signee. They join previous draftees like Nick Pratto (1st round, 2017), Khalil Lee (3rd round, 2016), and MJ Melendez (2nd round, 2017) as the potential future core of the Royals franchise.

The Royals’ development staff has a fair amount of work cut out for them, though; there isn’t a lot of upside to be found here, with most of their prospects — even first round picks like Singer — projecting as solid role players. This lack of star power and iffy overall depth leaves the Royals sitting near the bottom of the barrel when compared to other organizations around the game.

Player to watch: Kyle Zimmer

Kansas City’s collective speed will be worth keeping an eye on as the year progresses, but there might not be a more interesting player on their roster this season than Kyle Zimmer. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Zimmer was supposed to be a key piece of the Royals’ previous rebuild. Instead, injuries piled up — he has undergone two major arm surgeries since being drafted — and his minor league results suffered. He didn’t even pitch last season due to continued shoulder issues.

This spring, Zimmer is feeling better than ever, and is on track to make the Royals’ Opening Day roster. He spent the offseason working at Driveline Baseball in Seattle to iron out his mechanics and ramp up his velocity. The early results are promising; Zimmer has a pair of strikeouts in 4 23 innings of Cactus League play, and is regularly hitting high-90s readouts on the radar gun.

If all goes well, Zimmer could be part of the Royals’ next contender. He is still only 27 years old, and could slot into either the rotation or bullpen. The Royals will likely opt for the latter in 2019 given his arm troubles, and might be willing to keep him there if he flourishes in that role. They built their last title-winning team on the back of a lights out bullpen, and Zimmer offers as much potential as anyone in their system at making that a possibility in the near future.

Projected record: 67-95

The Royals are going to be bad in 2019. They may have Adalberto Mondesi blossoming into a young, cost-controlled star, but collectively, the Royals are projected to be one of the worst teams in baseball. This may change by the time this article goes live, but FanGraphs currently predicts finish in last place in the AL Central. That dubious honor was previously held by our beloved Tigers — and may yet again, these projections have literally changed daily during this preview series — but Salvador Perez’s injury will certainly have an effect on Kansas City’s efforts to win baseball games this year. Baseball Prospectus still has the Royals a few wins ahead of the Tigers, but heading for 90-plus losses all the same.